Law and disorder on the Pine Ridge Reservation
Manderson, S.D.— About 35 tribal police officers on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation patrol 2 million rambling acres, an area larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. But beyond the logistical headache of the job, it’s their mission.
Alcohol and drunkenness are illegal on the reservation and have been since 1889. The enforcement of the prohibition of alcohol consumes most of the crime-fighting resources the department has.
Drugs are a problem – weed, meth and cocaine are everywhere – but it’s almost exclusively alcohol that gives law enforcement on the reservation fits.
“They go into detox or a holding cell for 8 hours then get an hour of community service,” said Officer Becky Sotherland with the tribal police. “Sometimes they’re out before your shift is over, causing trouble.”
Tribal police say that of the roughly 200,000 calls they receive each year, about 80% of them are alcohol-related in one way or another. Sometimes it’s public drunkenness, fights or domestic violence. Drunk driving is a major killer and youth advocates and community groups say alcoholism is a companion to the reservations plague-high suicide rate.
The unemployment rate on the reservation is about 80%. The poverty rate is more than 50%. And in Shannon County, which lies completely within the boundaries of the reservation, more than 40% of the population is under the age of 18. These statistics make for a volatile combination on the reservation, where a sense of hopelessness hangs in stark contrast to the beautiful landscape of rolling hills and buttes.
“What’s heartbreaking is that everything is preventable,” Officer Sotherland said on a recent afternoon. “I can try and try and try but if the people I’m trying to help don’t want to help themselves, than what I’m doing will be a moot point. And that’s the frustrating part.”
Alcohol has long been a fierce nemesis to the Lakota, but the fight to keep the tribe sober may soon be getting tougher. Over the summer, tribal members voted to repeal the century-old ban on liquor sales and consumption on the reservation. The repeal won’t likely take effect for some time, as the Tribal Council must write new alcohol related laws, by-laws and ordinances.
Deputy Chief of Police John Mousseau called the repeal “a double-sided sword.”
“Once we get it legalized we can stop dealing with the drunks and drunk calls and we can do more follow up on our burglaries and more in-depth police work,” Mousseau said. “But I also think it’ll probably increase the number of calls because people are going to be more out in the open with it.”
In the meantime, offers spend much of their time responding to a dizzying amount of drunkenness and alcohol-related misbehavior. Sometimes they’re rousing suspected imbibers from their beds. They’re pulling over drunken drivers and busting teenagers with cases of beer, often making them empty the contents at their feet. Sometimes they’re tracking bootleggers. (Almost everyone in the small housing clusters spread across the reservation knows who is selling what and where to get it.)
The scourge of alcohol has torn at the fabric of families here. Hunger is rampant. And the ongoing struggle to save young people from suicide has been a losing battle.
“I think it all puts an emotional strain on our police officers, not only are we police officers, we are parents, we are grandparents and when we see young life that is prematurely ended it takes an emotional impact,” Mousseau said. “From all these years of doing this, we have all of this emotional baggage.”
Still, there’s hope, he said.
“It kind of feels like we’re not making a dent, like we’re just running up hill. But we are still running and trying our best.”